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If God is all-powerful
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If God is all-powerful, does that mean he has forsaken Ebola-ravaged West Africa?

Grappling with "the problem of pain."

Michael R. Strain @MichaelRStrain
November 10, 2014 | The Washington Post

“The situation is catastrophic. There are several villages and communities that have been basically wiped out. In one of the villages I went to, there were 40 inhabitants and 39 died,” said an official with Doctors Without Borders recently after visiting Sierra Leone, one of three West African countries devastated by Ebola. Anthony Fallah Borwah, a Liberian bishop,told a reporter, “We are losing our humanity in the face of Ebola,” which makes “impossible ordinary human kindnesses, such as putting your arm around someone who is crying.”

There is “a feeling,” the bishop said, “that God has forsaken us.”

It’s hard to look at West Africa and not wonder whether he’s right. Even as a practicing, believing Catholic, this situation, along with so many others, fills me with doubt. How could God allow this?

Hume asks “Epicurus’s old questions,” reminding us that they have yet to be answered: “Is [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?”

Rabbi Harold S. Kushner seems to offer a tempting answer to Epicurus: God is all-loving, but not all-powerful. “If we can bring ourselves to acknowledge that there are some things God does not control,” he writes, “many good things become possible.”

It is true that Ebola would be much easier to stomach if I believed that God could not will it out of existence in an instant. If God has the power and loves those thousands of people — not to mention the many that will follow — then how can he allow so much suffering and death?

And how can he allow a world where little children are struck with cancer? Surely there is nothing a two-year-old could do to deserve or merit such an awful fate. How can he allow a hurricane or an earthquake to decimate an entire community? Surely there were many good, moral, God-fearing people in that town.

We are all swimming in the intellectual wake of the (so-called) Enlightenment, so the modern mind searches for intellectual explanations. Rabbi Kushner’s is alluring, but is unavailable to Christians: For us, it isaxiomatic that God is all-powerful. But there are others.

For me, the most satisfying (though still lacking) intellectual explanation is found in the argument that any world God creates will be finite, and that finitude – to borrow from Leibniz — can be thought of as a “metaphysical evil.” Since our physical bodies do not exist forever, it is tautological that we must die. Bodily death, then, is an unavoidable outcome of existence.

A finite world governed by physical laws will contain evil as a matter of necessity. The same sun that allows for life will cause droughts and thirst. Cells can mutate, allowing for species to develop and evolve — but also allowing life-destroying and agonizing cancers. Ocean currents allow for waters teeming with food. They also occasionally destroy crops and villages along coastlines. The same gravity that stops us from floating off into space allows for us to accidentally fall into canyons.

But even the acceptance that a finite world must contain at least some physical evil doesn’t fully satisfy. Why doesn’t God step in and suspend those physical laws, perhaps redirecting a hurricane from time to time?

And even if a finite world must have suffering, it seems that ours could have a lot less. Suffering could still exist in the world without toddlers having to contract fatal illnesses. The world could still contain physical evil even if it didn’t have a disease as terrible as Ebola – a disease that not only subjects seven in 10 of its victims to horrible, gruesome deaths, but also, as Bishop Borwah points out, denies them the comforts of tears wiped, hands held, a kiss from loved ones to ease the beginning of their journeys from this world to the next.

I haven’t found an intellectually satisfying answer to what C. S. Lewis describes as “the problem of pain.” And on this side of eternity, I don’t expect to. But the lack of an answer is troubling. It shakes my faith.

The truth remains that suffering touches all our lives. We all feel pain. We all fall ill. We all pass away. “Thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.”

But for the Christian there is a deeper truth still: The fact that is the life of Jesus of Nazareth. His life ended on a cross, in death. For the Christian, man literally killed God. What could be more heinous? What could be more terrible? But his suffering and death also opened the gates of heaven, giving man the possibility of everlasting paradise, forgiveness — redemption. Suffering, previously hollow, thus takes on meaning; suffering thus gains purpose. “Death,” writes Saint Paul, “is swallowed up in victory.”

This, at the very least, is my hope. And sustaining it requires faith.

I sympathize with the bishop — it does feel like God has forsaken West Africa. I hope and have faith that he hasn’t. But doubt lingers. Believing remains, in part, an act of will.
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